By Marie Fox
Those of us who share our lives with dogs know that interspecies relationships are an important and mutually enriching basis for caring practices, yet it is also evident that dogs are often victims of a complete lack of care. These extremes of care are vividly captured in the contrast between the casual cruelty of the 27 year old trainee solicitor sentenced to 18 weeks in prison last month for leaving her boxer dog to starve in a locked kitchen, and the tenacity with which homeless people cling to their relationship with their dogs notwithstanding the difficulties this may pose to them in finding a home. Paradoxical attitudes also characterise media responses to dogs. At the same time that television programmes celebrate The Wonder of Dogs, newspaper reports disproportionately depict dogs as out of control weapons or feral killers. In a familiar litany of reporting of dog attacks on humans, common features are a focus on breed, a desire to impose responsibility and a failure to address the root causes of our problematic relationship with dogs. Over the last few months this is evident in accounts in February 2014 of dog attacks in Blackburn, where an eleven month old girl, Ava-Jane Corless, was savaged as she slept in her bed by an American pit bull type dog owned by her mother’s boyfriend, in Carmarthenshire where Eliza-Mae Mullane, a six day old girl, died having being pulled from her pram and bitten by her family’s Alaskan Malamute who had been acquired from someone in a pub, and in Lincolnshire where in March another pit bull type attacked a 22 year old woman walking near an old quarry.
Malamutes and bull breeds figure disproportionately amongst the sheer numbers of unwanted dogs that are stretching the resources of local authorities, charities and dog rescues. The 2013 Annual Stray Dogs Survey by Dogs Trust reveals that 111,986 stray and abandoned dogs were picked up across the UK over the last 12 months, equating to 307 stray dogs being found every day. Many are bull breeds, victims of a process of media stereotyping fuelled by the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act which in categorising pit bull terriers as dangerous dogs, has served to make all bull breeds perversely attractive to the wrong sort of owner. One particularly tragic case highlights the potential for well intentioned and caring actions to go wrong in the world of dog rescue. In November 2013 four year old Lexi Branson died after being mauled by her family’s dog Mulan. According to newspaper reports Lexi’s mother, Jody Hudson, fatally stabbed the dog in a frantic attempt to save her daughter when he attacked her on the floor of the lounge in their flat. It transpired that Mulan was an American bulldog type who had been adopted by Lexi’s mother in August 2013 from a Leicestershire rehoming centre. The rehoming reportedly took place after she had seen a picture of the dog in the rehoming section of the rescue’s facebook page. A friend of Ms Hudson reported that the dog had a soft nature and that Ms Hudson had been told he was safe around children. The rescue declined to comment. In the absence of all the facts it is important not to judge actions, as anyone involved in dog rescue will testify.
I volunteer with one of the many small dog rescues struggling to cope with Britain’s unwanted dogs. We work closely with a local authority pound in the North West of England to provide emergency kennel space for dogs who have not been reclaimed, rehomed or offered a rescue space within seven days. At this point they can lawfully be humanely destroyed under s 149 Environmental Protection Act 1990. A key aim of organisations like ours is to place our dogs with bigger and better resourced rescues. However, typically, due to their fear of being overrun with too many unwanted breeds, it falls to smaller rescues to rehome bull breeds – mostly Staffordshire Bull Terrier crosses. We homecheck for our dogs as carefully as possible, requiring prospective owners to complete forms, submit to a home visit, visit the dog in kennels and ensure that dogs are neutered and vaccinated prior to rehoming while dogs are not placed in a home with children under 10 years old. However a consequence of such conditions is that we lose out on good potential homes and in many cases prospective adopters will simply buy a puppy or adopt from a rescue too stretched to impose such conditions. And notwithstanding the care taken and great joy of waving a dog off to a new home, the process is inevitably accompanied with apprehension that things may go wrong, given the difficulties of adequately assessing dogs in a kennel environment.
However in the absence of the full story in most of these cases there are nevertheless a number of conclusions we can draw about media reporting and the reaction it has provoked which serve to highlight our flawed thinking about dogs. Initial media reports of the Branson case pictured Lexi with her uncle’s Dogue de Bordeaux who was erroneously deemed responsible for the attack and wrongly described as a French mastiff. The upshot was that breed specific rescues were reported in dogworld as having been inundated with calls from concerned owners wishing to give up their dogs. When pictures of Mulan were published, the immediate response of bull dog rescues was to deny that Mulan was a ‘British bulldog’, with an editorial in dogworld opining that “After some initial confusion, the dog responsible for this incident is now referred to as a bulldog even though it bears little resemblance to the pedigree Bulldogs bred in this country.” Such responses strike me as reflecting the manifold failures of social attitudes including UK law which casts dogs as disposable commodities and indiscriminately stigmatises certain dogs purely on the basis of their morphology or breed type. Media narratives which reify this focus on breed, and implicitly criticise the irresponsibility of a mother in choosing to allow into her home a dog of uncertain pedigree and origin, or rescues which somehow failed in an ill-defined area, obscure the root causes of indiscriminate breeding which produces unhealthy or ill socialised puppies, dangerous dogs legislation which has compounded the problems of unwanted and often traumatised bull breeds and a legal strategy of ascribing responsibility for stray and unwanted dogs to local authorities which are already struggling to fulfill their core responsibilities and are ill equipped to cope with the complexities of dealing with stray and dangerous dogs. Against this backdrop blaming a mother for her caring action in adopting a dog in need of a home, a not for profit organization struggling to fill the gaps in state provision or even the dog himself is manifestly ill conceived. Until our outdated and paradoxical legal attitudes to dogs are tackled, tragedies such as these unfortunately seem unavoidable, however much well intentioned individuals and dog rescues strive to care.